BRUSSELS, Belgium/MINDS GLOBAL SPOTLIGHT/EFE - People smugglers are increasingly relying on social media platforms, particularly Facebook, to find their customers.
Europol's European Migrant Smuggling Center (EMSC) last year identified 1,150 suspicious social media accounts – a staggering rise from the 148 accounts it was watching in 2015.
The trend, which is also is reflected in other parts of the world, has elevated social media's role in the smuggling trade to a top priority for European police in 2017.
"There is a huge spectrum of services that are being advertised on social media, from accommodation to transportation, to false IDs, visas, sham marriages, you name it," Europol expert Lara Alegria recently told reporters in Sicily, Italy.
Some social media accounts are even offering what another Europol official called "complete immigration packages, including entry into a country, residency and even work permits, as well as marriages and education for the children."
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has also documented this trend, and reports that an increasing number of migrants arriving in Italy and Greece have been "recruited" through social media, and especially Facebook.
In some ways, social media is an obvious choice for smugglers due to its global reach and the level of anonymity it provides. And it's typically free.
Social media accounts are created but vanish again within days, after they've done their job, the director of the IOM's regional office for the EU, Norway and Switzerland, Eugenio Ambrosi, tells the Spanish news agency EFE.
The EMSC says Facebook appears to be the platform of choice for smugglers, but some movement towards other providers, such as Telegram, has also emerged. Smugglers are also hiding their activities by using platforms including peer-to-peer accommodation networks, and ride-sharing services.
Most traffickers who advertise online are based in Turkey. But Europol has also found evidence of such activity via accounts based in Europe, offering "high quality false European documentation" and smuggling by land into the European Union, sometimes as a "transit point" to North America.
The primary services offered online are transport – which can include journeys on cruise ships, planes, and even cargo ships – as well as false identity and travel documents.
"The variety of services has greatly expanded and nowadays includes offers that suggest criminal groups are also attempting to corrupt embassy and consular officials from European embassies" typically located outside the EU, the EMSC says.
A Europol official has told EFE that some EU member states have launched investigations into whether smugglers have been paying consular staff working abroad to issue entry visas.
The European Police Office declined to comment on the official's claims, citing "ongoing investigations."
The IOM's Ambrosi says law enforcement agencies face a vast challenge in cracking down on smugglers who use social media to ply their trade.
Because networks, and the smugglers themselves, span different regions, and sometimes continents, simultaneous action is required, Ambrosi says.
Police have already had some successes on the back of cross-border cooperation.
In July last year, the EMSC produced 16 intelligence briefings for member states based on its monitoring of suspicious social media accounts.
In one success story stemming from those briefings, a ring of Turkish people smugglers was busted, and 12 migrants were arrested, aboard a cargo ship bound for Slovenia.
Facebook has told EFE that any content relating to people smuggling and human trafficking is against its community standards, and is removed when it is reported. – Rappler.com